There is no ‘Shonda Rhimes’ of the U.S. news media
In all that’s been said about Shonda Rhimes as of late, one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the fact that there’s not a single black woman of Rhimes’ stature in the news business.
When it comes to the upper-echelons of decision-making in the news media, black women have been largely locked out. That’s the real scandal nobody’s talking about.
Rapper-turned-media mogul Sean “P Diddy” Combs owns Revolt TV Media, a music venture in partnership with media giants Comcast and Time Warner cable systems. Russell Simmons is a huge name in media and other businesses, but he’s never really dabbled seriously in news; neither has Combs, for that matter. New York Times editor-in-chief, Dean Baquet, comes closest. But he answers to publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. The Times has experienced its fair share of gaffes this month, including a rather insulting piece about Rhimes and other black women in television. I’d like to think that this shoddy bit of journalism could have been prevented had a black woman been in in charge, or if one was at least included among Baquet’s top lieutenants.
Alas, that is not the case.
The Times‘ Shonda Rhimes piece set off a firestorm. From Salon to The Washington Post, several publications jumped in to take the The Gray Lady to task for the essay, which some publications found to be racist. Truth be told, none of the publications are in position to cast stones. Just as there are no black women on the masthead of The New York Times, there aren’t any at The Washington Post or The LA Times either for that matter, making any criticism of the Time’s lack of diversity look, well, hypocritical. As for Jezebel.com, one of the online publications to label the Times’ piece “racist…” Let’s just say the popular women’s portal also struggles with allowing black women to helm the site, even those who have proven themselves more than capable.
Sure, we have Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul with a television network named for her and owner of HARPO Productions. But Winfrey isn’t a shot-caller in the news business; she’s more into features, lifestyle and entertainment, plus OWN is the result of a partnership with the Discovery Channel, which has a significant say in the direction of the company. Cathy Hughes owns Radio One, but her company is better known for urban radio stations with a focus on music, not news. In partnership with Comcast, Radio One produces NewsOne hosted by Roland Martin, the only black television news show targeting African Americans, which airs weekday mornings on TV One, a network, again, known for other things besides news.
There are black women running smaller niche news shops such as Susan S. Richardson who is the editor and publisher of The Chicago Reporter. The investigative journalism publication focuses on race and poverty, not mainstream news.
There’s Carlos Watson, the CEO and co-founder of OZY.com, but he’s another male. Digital media startups are just as bad as legacy news media at installing black women at the top: With the exception of small, niche shops, black women are practically non-existent. Except for when it comes to Buzzfeed.
Shani O. Hilton, the executive editor at Buzzfeed, is perhaps the highest ranking black female at a major U.S. mainstream news media outlet, digital or otherwise. Most recently deputy editor-in-chief, it was just announced last week that Hilton would be taking on a bigger role at the viral news site. But even with that, Hilton’s name is on the “digital masthead” but not at the very top of it. Still, while she may not always have the final say, Hilton comes close.
Just imagine if an Oprah Winfrey, Sean “P Diddy” Combs or Russell Simmons bankrolled a digital news startup with a black woman in charge the way internet tycoon Pierre Omidyar did with activist journalist/lawyer Glenn Greenwald in command at First Look Media. Or what if Winfrey, Combs and Simmons came together to launch a news platform featuring a black woman at the top, or a black person period, the way that Jerome Armstrong, Tyler Bleszinski and Markos Moulitsas came together to create Vox.com with Ezra Klein at the helm?
As the most powerful woman in American television, Shonda Rhimes is the boss, at least at on Thursday nights. But the fact that she has no counterpart in the news business tells us how news organizations write their own version of “How To Get Away With Murder” every single day.
Tracie Powell is the founder and publisher of AllDigitocracy.org.